Xi Bohai, of the Plum Blossom’s Shadow approached the town as he had been requested. Verdant Hill, if his maps were correct. He was tired, and sweaty from his long, hard ride, and yet he stayed the course. Trading horses every town when the beasts had started to exhaust themselves was a novel experience. For the first time, he had the coin to do so, and this was a priority.
A rather novel priority, to be sent this far north, but Master Scribe’s Mission took priority.
He knew not for what reason Master Scribe had for wanting to find “Jin Rou” but for him to take a hundred clans and restructure them into something more? Into the Plum Blossom’s Shadow? It had to be of vast and grave importance.
Every man who had been there, upon the Plum Blossom’s Advent, as they were calling it, had seen the look in Master Scribe’s eyes. The feeling of weight and purpose that drove his every action.
Was he some manner of prince? A great general? None knew for certain, but he had to be someone of importance. And someone of importance, someone far beyond the normal movers and shakers of the Azure Hills, had chosen them.
Master Scribe had come to them, and given them a vision of what they could be. Of what they were going to be.
The thoughts of power, of prestige, of something more than their base existence had infected them all. Clans who had been enemies for a thousand years had pledged their loyalty, and their men to the cause.
A single, unified power-block. A rising star, guided by the masterful hand of Master Scribe.
It was a heady feeling, to be a part of something so grand.
His back was straight and tall as he ventured into the town. The guards here were quite alert, checking his Merchant’s license.
He was let in swiftly, as his papers were all in order. He thanked the guards, and was on his way. The town itself was small and quaint, on top of its hill, but surprisingly clean and well patrolled. Almost suspiciously well patrolled. The guards were by far the most vigorous and alert he had encountered since leaving the southern end of the province.
He frowned slightly at them, but did not believe they would be a problem. It wasn’t like he was smuggling anything this time.
It was getting dark out, so he went first to the tavern, to stow his belongings, and get his horse some feed and water.
It was a lively place. There were already men drinking and talking, and though he got a few curious looks, most people dismissed him as he entered.
He sat at a stool, and ordered some food. A noodle dish with pork, and observed the room. Where to begin? The people were quite cheerful, and many looked to be a bit drunk. Perfect.
“Thank you,” he said as he received his dish. “Lovely town, this Verdant Hill.”
The serving girl’s chest puffed out with pride, her plump cheeks dimpling with her smile.
“Every merchant says that! It’s all because of the Lord Magistrate, it is!” she declared, and there were murmurs of assent from those who had overheard.
Curious. It was the first time he had heard a magistrate spoken of with such high regard.
“The Patriarch of Verdant Hill is a true man,” the man beside him, who was quite intoxicated, said. “Everybody wishes they could have their own!”
Xi Bohai nodded appropriately.
“So what brings you to Verdant Hill, anyway?” the drunk man asked.
“Ah, I’m a bit of a wandering merchant, and I like to go where there are interesting rumours,” he stated, smiling companionably. “I heard that the Azure Jade Trading Company sent a member here, so decided to see what the fuss was about.”
The drunk man nodded his head. “Yeah, I heard about them. Too expensive! Nobody could afford any of his wares, so he left!”
Bohai nodded at the information. “Ah, I had hoped to find whatever he had come for, but alas.” He chuckled. He waved at the serving girl again, asking for a bottle of wine.
He paid, and poured both himself, and his new “friend” a cup.
“Oh, cheers!” the drunk man shouted, smiling brightly.
“What else can you tell me about Verdant Hill?” he asked. The man needed no more encouragement. “The prices, anything interesting… Or, I’ve heard tales of a cultivator around these parts,” he whispered, as if he disbelieved the statement.
The man brightened at the last question. “Oh, yeah, there was a cultivator around here,” the man said. Xi Bohan frowned at the ‘was’ part, but this was good. This was something he could use—
The man abruptly stood, and raised his cup high. “To Sister Medical Fairy!” he shouted. The tavern erupted into shouts of “Sister Medical Fairy!”
Sister Medical Fairy? A Woman? What? There hadn’t been anything about the cultivator being a woman.
“Yeah, the Lord Magistrate hired her! What a man, The Patriarch of Verdant Hill! He can snap his fingers, and summon a cultivator to fix our problems before they even start!” another man shouted.
“The Patriarch! The Patriarch!” The shouts sounded out.
“Let me tell you how Sister Medical Fairy saved the town!” the drunk man shouted.
Bohai listened to a tale of motes of green light that helped the sick instantly, and a small woman with her face covered by cloth.
He would bring back the information, but… all of a sudden, he was uncertain.
“…was this Sister Medical Fairy the same who defeated the Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain?” he asked quietly, once things had calmed down.
His conversational partner froze, his drunken mind churning.
“The what?” he asked, confused.
The serving girl pondered. “I think I heard that rumour. Some wandering cultivator beat the tar out of some imposter and handed him over to the guards. It could have been her. I don’t see Sister Medical Fairy tolerating that kind of thing.”
Bohai nodded along, while pondering.
Wandering cultivator. Sister Medical Fairy. He would dig deeper tomorrow. Perhaps try the name Jin Rou?
However, the next day proved rather fruitless.
Wandering cultivator. Fairy Sister. Both of these events happened, but to the people, they were muddied.
The only men who seemed to know anything were the guards who all said the same thing. A wandering cultivator had deposited a rapist in their care, and the Shrouded Mountain had come and collected him.
They were also rather tight-lipped about his appearance, or didn’t know, and Bohai got the feeling that he may have pushed too hard.
He sighed, as he sat in the town square. He had nothing. Nothing but a gust of wind whistling through the leaves. Some may be able to track a man just from that, but he couldn’t.
He needed something. Not just a ‘possibly’ for his Master. Maybe Jin Rou had been here. Maybe he hadn’t.
He grimaced, as he heard the sound of armoured feet. He glanced up at the sound, showing a contingent of guards, with weapons sheathed. They had their eyes set firmly upon him as they approached.
Old instincts kicked in. His eyes searched around the square, finding other guards already in position at the exits.
Instead, he sat still, and tried to project confidence, his eyes flicked to the guard, who was wearing a rather new looking sensor stone.
“Sir. If you could please come with me,” the lead asked of him, in a neutral tone of voice.
He idly considered attempting to make a break for it anyway, but…well, he still had one last weapon to play.
He nodded his head. “Of course, captain. Lead on,” he said disarmingly, and the guard nodded, as the rest took up an escort formation.
There were no manacles. He was actually rather surprised that he wasn’t even grabbed. The guards here were surprisingly polite.
He was taken to the jailhouse, and offered tea.
“Sir. We would like to request you cease your line of questioning. The cultivator specifically asked that we keep our peace.” The man was refreshingly blunt and honest. In any other case, he would be quite happy to leave it at that, as getting on a cultivator’s bad side was the last thing he wished to do.
But he had orders. His Master had commanded him to find Jin Rou. And so he unveiled his last weapon.
“I am here on official business,” he said simply, now that he had some confirmation that the guards had orders. “May I speak with the Lord Magistrate on this matter?”
Eyes widened, as the guards beheld the sheaf of papers with a seal.
A seal of the Palace of Pale Moon Lake.
It had been surprisingly easy to get. The harried man had barely looked at the papers, when Bohai had told him he was meant to be there, and what he needed.
‘Always make sure to check the relevant documents and procedures,’ Master Scribe had told them.
Profound wisdom, that had let them find a great many holes in areas where there otherwise would be none.
Still, better to lay low, instead of going around declaring he was on official business everywhere. Master Scribe had said to be discreet, but if Bohai was right, then perhaps the Magistrate would know something.
The guards glanced at each other again, and swallowed
The Palace was like all the others Xi Bohan had been to, except smaller. Really, it was rather quaint, but the Scribes here were hard at work, diligently going over reports. It was bustling, instead of sleepy, but he didn’t get that much of a glance at what was happening.
He was led to a set of double doors, also guarded, and let in.
The man sitting behind the desk raised his head to meet him, spearing Bohai with his gaze. Bohai swallowed thickly. The man had a stately mask as his face, and his aura was commanding. In that instant, he knew why this man was revered as patriarch. His eyes reminded him a bit of Master Scribe.
“Han Yang?” The Magistrate asked, and Bohai nodded his head at the name on his license. “You wish to know about… The incident?” The Magistrate’s eyes flicked from Bohai’s hands to his face, and they narrowed slightly.
“Yes,” Bohai stated as authoritatively as he could. The Magistrate considered him for a moment… Before relaying the exact same story the guards had given him.
Until the last part.
“He was rather strong of a mere imposter,” the Magistrate said idly.
That was interesting, and could be confirmation.
“And the wandering cultivator?” he asked.
The Magistrate stared at him for a moment longer. “He left the day after he handed the man over.”
Bohai sighed internally. Cultivators made everything more difficult.
“We are looking for a man. Tall, brown hair and eyes, with freckles,” Bohai stated, his eyes narrowing as the Magistrate looked up, his face frozen.
There was tenseness in the air.
“His name is Jin Rou.”
The mask cracked for a brief instant. Bohai saw confusion cross the Magistrate’s face, before his mask settled once more.
“I do not know of a man by that name, save the butcher. And he has not left the city in forty years,” the Magistrate stated, and Bohai got the sense that he was being completely honest.
He smiled at the Magistrate, bowed his head, and left.
He mulled over his findings in the tavern that night, thinking of what to write in his report.
But should he go searching more? Check the villages?
They had said he was a wandering cultivator.
Bohai sighed. He could stay for a while, and try to see if he could get any more information, but the guards and the Magistrate both had their eyes on him.
He grimaced. He had something. But still no Jin Rou, save a butcher, who actually had looked startlingly like the description given for the man he was actually searching for.
He stayed one more day, but accomplished little else. People kept asking him what the guards had wanted him for, and there was no real larger population to slip into.
Bohai left the same way he had entered, frustrated, but with some confirmation. And really, would a cultivator stay around here?
His ears perked up as he heard a man shouting about a spirit beast that was to the southwest. That would be for somebody else to pursue, once the Plum Blossom’s Shadow expanded to the north. It was inevitable that they would rise.
The Lord Magistrate of Verdant Hill frowned from the top of his palace.Somebody was searching for Rou Jin. or was it Jin Rou? The man who had asked his questions, whoever he was, was most certainly not what his documents claimed, if his gut was right, and it often was. His hands were a bit too rough, and not in the right ways, of grinding ink or holding pens.
The Lord Magistrate had made his choice. Better the devil he knew.
His stomach churned, as he stared out over his village. He would tell Rou Jin of what had happened.
Hopefully, that would be the end of this, but he was not reassured. Cultivators always brought trouble.